'The B-Side' Is an Entertaining Study of the American Songbook

This will be one big revelation for anyone steeped in a rock-centric understanding of pop history, and validation for those who treasure the Songbook in all its glory.

The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song

Publisher: Riverhead
Length: 304 pages
Author: Ben Yagoda
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-01

This is how deeply ingrained the classic American mid-20th century pop song is within our culture:

Linda Ronstadt unwittingly started something in 1983 with What’s New, an album of compositions by the likes of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin arranged by Nelson Riddle (no stranger to the canon himself). Nowadays, it’s not at all news when famous rock and pop stars go back to the music of the ‘30s and ‘40s, either to tackle good material without trying to compete with the likes of Rhianna, or to make a quick buck off baby boomer nostalgia. But back in the early ‘80s, fresh off punk and disco and with new wave and hip-hop emerging, no one was interested in hearkening back to a so-called simpler time.

So Saturday Night Live felt compelled in 1984 to skewer Ronstandt’s departure from the pop norm, basically calling her an old, washed-up fart. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, all dolled up like Ronstadt on a recreation of the album cover, sang these parodic lyrics to an instrumental track of the title song:

What’s old?

Records I make turn to gold,

And though the income’s grand,

The songs I sing, I don’t understand,

Thank God for the band.

What’s next?

This old backup singer’s perplexed.

I sing old songs for you,

‘Cause I can’t do what’s new!

But here’s the thing: note that SNL, in sticking it to Ronstadt for her deep dive into a seemingly irrelevant pop past, had to give the devil its due by nailing note for note the trappings of Ronstadt’s endeavor. Note also that Ronstadt enjoyed the last laugh: What’s New was enough of a hit to spawn two more collaborations with Riddle.

She might be laughing still. Now, 30 years later, Tony Bennett’s duet album with Lady Gaga of songs from the same territory What’s New mined showed up on the pop charts, even as the rest of the music world spins ever more dizzily away from the time those songs really were what was new. Oh, but what a time it was: from roughly the ‘20s through the ‘40s – the years when big bands, Broadway shows and movie musicals held dominion over the music industry – the song was the thing.

The (mostly) men who wrote those songs were not just stars but celebrities, often of a greater magnitude than the performers who sang them. We know them today as the titans of American popular song: Berlin, George and his brother Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, “Yip” Harburg, Duke Ellington, to name only a few. The songs they wrote have come to be known as standards, select members of what has come to be called, thanks to a 1972 Carmen McCrae album, The Great American Songbook.

More than 70 years after the peak of the era, selections from it are playing in a Starbucks or other retail establishment near you right now. Someone went to the trouble of compiling a Spotify playlist of 200 renditions from the canon, by everyone from Bing Crosby to Amy Winehouse. One could quibble about some of the playlist’s inclusions, but such is the canon’s richness that a lot of its songs aren’t represented, and another playlist or seven could easily be compiled from other recordings of the songs that are. I’m not exactly sure why a body of work which has been so much a part of our lives for so long needs a preservation society, yet the Songbook has two of them.

The Bennett-Gaga project is the exception to the trend of standards albums nowadays coming mostly from pop stars on the other side of their hit-making years. But even the schlockiest of those projects (I’m looking at you, Rod Stewart) chase after a certain timelessness and panache seemingly unique to standards, something that presumably cannot be found in anything written in the last 60-odd years (and thought to be better appreciated by grown-ups who still buy their music in physical form than by their impetuous, streaming-happy offspring).

Vintage alone does not make a standard; there was an awful lot of corn, racist asides, and other forgettable and long-forgotten tripe among the jewels. In this entertaining, enlightening survey of the Songbook era, Ben Yagoda, helps identify some of the difference between the two extremes. But he’s more interested in establishing how the Songbook era happened and sustained itself across a generation or two, and how it was unceremoniously deposed by changes within both pop music itself and the music industry as a whole.

His chronology begins at the dawn of the 20th Century, which happens also to be the dawn of the music industry. Back then, the coin of the realm was sheet music, the notations of melody and lyrics for consumers to play the songs themselves at home (records existed then, but were seen as luxury items because turntables were seen more as furniture than home entertainment). The songs came from writers almost exclusively headquartered on one block of West Twenty-Eighth Street in Manhattan, which came to be known as “Tin Pan Alley” for all the noise music publishers and song pluggers (the people entrusted to hustle and promote the songs) generated.

Songs of that day were a lot less concise and, well, poppy than they soon became. They had endless verses and traded on the saccharine and banal. The growth of the 78 RPM record changed a lot of that; because the disc could contain no more than about three minutes of music, songs got shorter in a hurry. As the recorded music segment of the industry exploded, sheet music sales declined drastically (and never regained their market share).

The first wave of great songwriters (Yagoda gives just enough biographical information about his subjects to both illuminate the story and keep it flowing) had their ears to the street. They incorporated rhythms and harmonies from the black blues and pop of the era, and picked up the tempo of their tunes once it became obvious Americans liked to dance. Once radio took off in the ‘20s, performances of songs became the content that fed the beast. Those songwriters also populated the great Broadway musicals of the time, and some of them picked up work out West once Hollywood started making movies with sound. By the early ‘30s, the Songbook era was off and running.

But Yagoda’s story is not merely a tracing of the art form; he shows how commerce drove both the growth and demise of the era. First, there was the matter of playing records on the radio, as opposed to the live musicians who became popular on broadcasts; the American Federation of Musicians was none too pleased about that. Then there was the matter of getting songwriters properly compensated for getting their songs played on the air. That job fell to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which was formed in 1913 and had taken a central role in the business of music by the ‘30s.

The networks that owned radio stations, and the record labels that churned out the music they played, chafed at the arrangement, and in 1940 formed a competing organization, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). They struck back by banishing all ASCAP songs from the airwaves for a few months. That actually opened the door for songs from other sources, since ASCAP wasn’t too keen on letting non-whites into the club. It also turned out to be the first of a series of strikes, bans and spats throughout the ‘40s; Yagoda details the disruptions and shifts each of these maneuvers brought to the industry.

But the biggest disruption to the Songbook era Yagoda cites was the most feared oboe player in the history of oboes. It wasn’t Mitch Miller’s playing that gained him power, but his gig as house producer at Columbia Records in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Miller used his position to dictate which songs Columbia artists, including Bennett and Frank Sinatra, would record. His taste went in the opposite direction from the understated elegance of the Songbook writers. The simpler the better was his m.o., and he was most inclined to gimmick up the songs, many of which were already gimmicky enough (“How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”), with syrupy vocal choruses and studio trickery. The masterful tunesmiths of American song were suddenly reduced to begging for crumbs.

Add to that the explosion of R&B and country after World War II, which captured the restlessness of a new America that the Songbook-era writers neither anticipated nor articulated. The end result was a generation of great American songwriters transformed overnight into grumpy old men bitching about the existence of rock ‘n’ roll (and also, as Yagoda charts, the shrinking of their royalty checks). What Yagoda alludes to, and historians like Albin Zak explore in greater detail, is that ever since the ‘50s, it’s been the record (or track, for the digitally inclined) that is the thing.

But the writing and performing of standard-style songs did not die, at least not right away. Yet another wave of songwriters emerged in the ‘50s, and while not as prolific as their predecessors, they still made a lot of memorable contributions to the Songbook. Sinatra’s recording career took off after his misadventures at Columbia (he couldn’t stand Miller and the feeling was mutual) with a series of albums in the late ‘50s, arranged by Riddle and featuring standards both older and newer; today’s standards albums by pop stars are rooted in Sinatra classics like Songs for Young Lovers and Only the Lonely. Further, Tin Pan Alley’s traditions resurfaced in the ‘60s, with the Brill Building songwriters penning a long string of pop hits, many of which have become, of a sort, standards in their own right (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Be My Baby”).

By the time the Beatles, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, Motown’s Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland team, and others established rock’s first wave of auteurs, jazz had become the Songbook’s de facto repository. Ella Fitzgerald’s divine Songbook recordings in the ‘50s and ‘60s, songwriter by songwriter, stand 16 CDs tall as a singularly comprehensive and joyous performance of the canon. Yagoda cites jazz singers such as Mabel Mercer, Jackie & Roy and Blossom Dearie for their roles in keeping both the classics and newer standard-style songs in circulation. Miles Davis, in his early ‘50s post-cool period, gets a lot of credit, and even John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” which jazz’s most relentless boundary-pusher would extend in directions Rodgers and Hammerstein never anticipated, gets a shout-out.

These latter developments suggest “standards” has two meanings. The first refers to a more-or-less common structure of the songs themselves, verse-verse-bridge-verse (or AABA); although not every song hewed to this form, it was simple enough for the greats to master, and for audiences to easily grasp. And because the songs were so ubiquitous and beloved, they established a common – or standard – language of pop. Everybody knew these songs; with an entertainment mainstream unimaginably less diffuse than what we know today, they were easily the most available songs to know. The greatest of these melodies and lyrics, as did a lot of the crap, seared themselves indelibly into the popular imagination. Granted, they would be seen as brilliant pieces of songwriting no matter when they emerged, but back then, there was a lot less clutter in their way.

Nowadays, it’s much trickier to refer to a song as a “standard” in either sense. The compositional forms a great song can take have been expanded by leaps and bounds, starting with your basic 12-bar blues (there aren’t a whole lot of standards that were written that way, although many draw from blues language and feeling). And there are a lot more audiences listening to a lot more things, and each of those audiences has its own pack of essential songs, with only a select few crossing across audience boundaries.

There have been think pieces galore on those ideas over the years, but the coda to Yagoda’s historical narrative stops well short of the who’s-writing-new-standards rabbit hole (which also leads to jazz, as it turns out: jazz musicians both continue to perform and reinterpret the old songs, and bring tunes by more recent songwriters like Stevie Wonder and Kurt Cobain under the bigger “standards” tent).

The B-Side instead stays focused on the functioning of a particular era in popular music. Yagoda accomplishes quite the neat trick here, by conveying roughly 40 years of industry dealings and artistic achievements with both detail and a light touch. There are countless patches of weeds along this path, but he steers clear of arcane wonkery to fashion a fascinating tale. Even when it seems he’s gotten stuck in one of those patches (as in the long examination of songwriter Ray Evans’ career), he comes out on the other side having illuminated a key point, and dropped an “a-ha!” moment or two, to boot.

The book’s title contains more than a little irony. “B-side” is a term associated with records, not songs; you can’t turn a song over on your turntable and play whatever’s there. But the long arc of America’s pop music history can be seen as a pas de deux between the song and the record. The former is an idea, the latter is a realization of it. It’s like the difference between the blueprint and the building. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognizes this, which is why there are separate Grammy Awards for Song and Record of the Year. It’s also why the latter award gets the headlines, with the former getting mentioned several paragraphs later in the story, if at all.

Actually, this wonderful chronicle is a B-side. It’s the flip side to thinking the whole songwriter-as-auteur thing was invented in the ‘60s. It also rebukes any sense that shady machinations within the music industry are recent phenomena. This will be one big revelation for anyone steeped in a rock-centric understanding of pop history, and validation for those who treasure the Songbook in all its glory. And since these songs comprise so many strains of America’s cultural DNA, everyone stands to walk away from this richly told saga with not only a song in her/his heart, but also fresh knowledge about how it got there.

Splash image: Frank Sinatra (wallpaper). Photographer unknown.


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